When Manchester United went 3-0 up on Super Sunday, there was little chance Leeds would enter damage limitation mode. It’s simply not in their nature.
Their unapologetic style is great to watch. It’s brave, against the grain, and part of the reason Marcelo Bielsa was in a shortlist of three for FIFA coach of the year.
But can it be successful at the highest level?
This was the fourth time Leeds have conceded four or more goals this season. Only four sides have scored more than them, but no sides have conceded more.
It’s about balance, and on Sunday, the only formational balance on show was when Leeds kicked off – seven times.
Bielsa’s Leeds are marmite to the neutral football fan. So many promoted sides have stunk out the division in order to secure a second term, and Leeds should be credited for resisting that. Others think it’s overhyped and destined to fail.
But forget about the neutrals: what do Leeds themselves want in the long-run? And will this style continue to work as more players come and go through increased investment?
They should be fine this season, and Bielsa has carefully put together a side willing to function this way. It will not always work, as we saw on Sunday, and while that is the case, they will continue to be entertainers in a league where increasingly only results matter.
“I even like his haircut, I think his haircut has made him sharper,” said Roy Keane of Scott McTominay. High praise indeed.
For all the talk of proper “Manchester United-type players” to return them to their glory days, McTominay is a real throwback. Sunday’s chaotic 6-2 win over Leeds was the perfect game for him; break up play, run into space, gallop box-to-box without much opposition.
He will not get this freedom every game, or a licence to run forward with the ball rather than protect the defence, but this was the occasion McTominay showed more layers to his game.
The 24-year-old, a striker in his youth days, displayed his ability in front of goal with a long-range finish, before a sublime take and finish for his second just moments later. He registered the second-most sprints (23) behind Daniel James, and in a game of pinball, lost the ball less than any midfielder on the pitch.
Defending was not on the menu at Old Trafford, and this felt like a Premier League game of old – no wonder Keane enjoyed it so much. The end-to-end nature also suited McTominay, a natural runner.
For McTominay, the key now is consistency. This comes after a string of less-than remarkable performances, but it may take a bizarre game like Sunday’s to give him confidence.
As harsh as Slaven Bilic’s sacking was, there is a certain logic to West Brom’s appointment of Sam Allardyce. That track record of improving teams and avoiding relegation means hope for the club’s bosses. But the Baggies’ predicament means lots of hard work ahead for Allardyce himself.
If he did not appreciate that before, it would have taken only four minutes for it to become clear as Bertrand Traore’s ball eluded Darnell Furlong and Sam Johnstone on its way to Anwar El Ghazi. A red card and two more Aston Villa goals later and West Brom had lost 3-0 to remain in the drop zone.
Allardyce talks a pretty good game in identifying the key elements to survival in the Premier League with clean sheets, set plays and good discipline all near the top of the list. But identifying them is one thing. Many doubt whether this group of West Brom players have the quality to execute the plan.
Allardyce will need time on the training ground to turn it around and – perhaps worryingly for the club’s supporters – hinted in his post-match press conference at the Hawthorns that he did not fully appreciate the practicalities of just how little time he would have to do so.
“It may take a little longer than I had anticipated,” he said. “I have come back and I did not realise how restrictive the restrictions were and I did not realise how much the players were playing and what the fatigue levels looked like. The sports science lads have been talking about the fact that training has to be at a minimum so I am having to squeeze my coaching in when I can.”
On this evidence, there is a lot of coaching required.
Tottenham’s counter-attack football under Jose Mourinho this season has been a success so far – and it’s produced some standout victories, from Manchester United away to Manchester City and Arsenal at home.
That blend of defensive excellence and clinical finishing from Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son, after white-knuckle transitions, has been a winning formula – and but for a couple of Steven Bergwijn missed chances or a Kane header, could even have ended Liverpool’s long-standing unbeaten run at Anfield in midweek.
But by not cutting loose creatively, Spurs do leave themselves vulnerable if there are mistakes at the back or the finishing is not as sharp as we have come to expect. On Sunday, against Leicester, Spurs were caught out at both ends of the pitch.
Jose Mourinho called Serge Aurier’s barge on Wesley Fofana for the penalty a “mistake”. Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane preferred “utter madness”. Either way, it handed the initiative to the visitors, and when Toby Alderweireld’s own goal went in, Spurs were left with a mountain to climb, especially given the fact they had struggled to trouble Kasper Schmeichel up to that point, with Kane heading their best opening over in the first half.
Son would draw a superb stop from the ‘keeper later in the game but, just like last weekend at Crystal Palace, Mourinho’s risk-adverse approach seems pretty risky if everything does not click into place.
Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso both started this one – the first time they had been paired in midfield this season – and the pre-match sense was Spurs would be more adventurous. They did not have a shot until the 34th minute. Mourinho said afterwards he does not send his players out “not to be proactive” but finding a way to switch between caution and cavalier could be key to Spurs sustain their encouraging start this season.
Brendan Rodgers wants to play it down. And everyone else seems pretty dismissive of Leicester’s title chances, too. But for the second Christmas in a row, the Foxes will be in the top two on December 25 – and their fans should rightly feel excited about what is to come with this side.
Timothy Castagne’s return from two months out and Jonny Evans’ comeback from suspension added steel and class to the backline, but Wesley Fofana and James Justin were remarkably impressive, too, given their tender ages.
Ahead of them, Wilfred Ndidi continues to make his case as the most destructive player in the league, regaining possession a remarkable 18 times, while, alongside classy operator Youri Tielemans and speedy dribbler Harvey Barnes, James Maddison, after a strangely below-par performance in midweek, delivered another reminder of his quality, creating five chances – at least two more than anyone else – and was only denied a brilliantly-taken goal by a marginal VAR offside call.
Then up top is the irrepressible Jamie Vardy. A nightmare for even the meanest of defences. Toby Alderweireld attempted a man-marking job but despite doing it well for most of the game, still came undone. Add in Caglar Soyuncu and Ricardo Pereira, who are soon to return from injury, and this team has the quality to go far.
Rodgers continues to label his Leicester side as a developing young team. And they are. But they are also developing rapidly into one of the best sides in the Premier League. Consistency – home and away – is now the next step.
This was more like the Sheffield United of last season: well organised, tactically astute, committed and astute on the break.
When John Lundstram thundered into a reckless challenge on Joel Veltman it looked like another one of those days for the Blades. However, down to 10-men, Wilder gave everyone a reminder of his tactical nous by soaking up some limp Brighton attacks and breaking quickly off the lively Oliver Burke in attack. Enda Stevens whipped one just wide before David McGoldrick set up Jayden Bogle for an unlikely opening goal. Yes, they could not hold but it was not for the want of trying.
Their spirit and desire for the shirt was epitomised by a quite monstrous performance by Chris Basham. If something needed sorting out, Basham was your man for the Blades. His 12 match clearances was five more than any other player on the pitch as he adapted to switching from part of a back three to a defensive midfield role in the style of a very intelligent footballer. Only three players have made more than 12 clearances in one match this season, just showing how relentless he was at defending his box.
More of that type of endeavour and if the Blades are going down, they will be going with a fight.
Brighton are now just two points above the relegation zone. Much like last season, Graham Potter’s side can point to impressive performance and shots data but it’s not returning enough wins, especially at home. The Amex is not a happy hunting ground.
Brighton have won one of last 16 Premier League home games (D8 L7), that win coming against in Arsenal in June – that victory remains their only home Premier League win of 2020.
Sheffield United gave Potter’s team the perfect platform to ease some of their home pressure when John Lundstram was dismissed just before the break. However, Brighton, despite enjoying huge possession and territory, were ponderous with their attacking play as the Blades stood firm and hit cleverly on the counter. In the end, Potter, famed for his passing style, resorted to direct ball into the Blades box which led to the all-important equaliser from Danny Welbeck. It’s worrying times for Potter ball.
Not to worry though, it’s Arsenal next up at the Amex.